Toot, toot! Popeye the sailor man turns 75
November 13, 2004
NEW YORK – Put away the cake. Pass the spinach.
Popeye celebrates his 75th birthday this year, animated evidence that a steady diet of leafy green vegetables and pipe smoking can guarantee you Hulk Hogan forearms as a septuagenarian. To honor the veteran sailor man, the Museum of Television and Radio unveiled a retrospective Saturday featuring rarities and collectibles from the cartoon hero’s career.
“There are very few characters that are that old and still in the public consciousness,” said Barry Monush, curator of the exhibit. “It’s quite impressive to stick around that long and stay recognizable.”
Recognizable? Who could forget that face, with its jutting jaw and permanently squinting right eye? Or those arms, with the signature anchor tattoos?
The exhibit at the midtown Manhattan museum features five flat-screen televisions running a loop of classic cartoons, with Popeye proudly proclaiming, “I yam what I yam.” He’s joined, as always, by the usual cast of sidekicks: love interest Olive Oyl, nemesis Bluto, the ever-indigent Wimpy and baby Swee’ Pea.
Popeye was launched in 1929, debuting in a minor role in the comic strip “Thimble Theater.” The sailor was an immediate hit with readers, and artist E.C. Segar converted him into the star of the strip within two years.
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Several of the “Thimble Theater” strips, including one from the Dec. 12, 1931, New York Evening Journal, are on display.
But it was the Max Fleischer short films, 109 in all, that ingrained the spinach-chomping sailor into the national consciousness. The first one debuted in 1933, and Popeye became such an instant icon that spinach consumption in the United States jumped 33 percent during the 1930s.
In the 1950s, the Fleischer cartoons arrived on television and created a whole new generation of Popeye fans. New Popeye cartoons debuted in the 1970s, although that incarnation was more politically correct: He didn’t smoke a pipe, and was far less likely to pound Bluto into a pulp.
He was, however, still strong to the finish. And he still ate his spinach – although no one is really quite sure why.
“I’ve never read anywhere why spinach was chosen,” said curator Monush. “Maybe it was something that Segar liked. Or hated. Maybe it was just a big joke.”
Segar died in 1938, but that did nothing to slow down the Popeye phenomenon: kids in Denmark knew the character as Skipper Skraek, while Italian children were treated to cartoons with Bracchio Di Ferro (Iron Arm).
The retrospective also features a variety of Popeye memorabilia, from comic books to an original 1933 production cell to the “Official Popeye Pipe,” still in its original package with the promise “It toots!”
“Well, Blow Me Down!: 75 Years of Popeye” runs through Jan. 30 at the museum. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens and $5 for children under 14. And no – you cannot pay Tuesday for a tour today.
On the Net:
Museum of Television and Radio: http://www.mtr.org/